For the third installment of the anthropologies food issue, we have an essay from William Cotter and Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson.* –R.A.
From a Caffeinated Elite to Average Joes
If you’re in academia, you probably have a very close relationship with coffee. For most Americans, coffee feels like a necessary part of our day, crucial to our higher-order cognitive functioning. Coffee has been a staple in American households and workplaces for over 100 years, and coffee as a commodity is one of the most widely traded and profitable items on the international market (Pendergrast 1999). In early 19th century, coffee served as a strong index for the elite classes of American society. It was expensive, often challenging to obtain, and was consumed primarily within prestigious social circles. However, the increasing reach of white European imperialism and the fine-tuning of the mechanisms of colonial trade and exploitation led to such resources becoming accessible to a wider range of consumers. In less than a century, the notion of coffee as a beverage consumed in the drawing rooms of the upper crust eroded. Coffee instead became a ubiquitous fixture of the American working class, tied to notions of cheery productivity and the booming prosperity of the American labor force (Jimenez 1995).
Call it what you will: an anecdotal and impressionist narrative, or a set of strung-together fieldnotes, collected over years of living and working with people across class lines (in my own home construction sites, in an NGO working in the space of education, in my locality with maids and workers and neighbors) suspended indefinitely in a life of participant observation. The following is a story of the ways in which the future frames us—in both senses of the word.
It is a week before the second spate of massive rains will flood Chennai city, causing the worst flooding the city has seen in 100 years. We are at Home Center on TTK Road in Alwarpet, one of the new home and lifestyle chains which feel much like a localized version of Bed, Bath, and Beyond—down to lighting and layout. We are with my parents and elderly uncle, who is fond of remarking on each instance he finds of facilities and services being “just like in a foreign country.” These days, there appear to be many such.
Back home in Pondicherry, a tiny little “modular kitchen” furnishing, appliance, and homeware showroom has recently opened up, directly across from a housing block, built thanks to the Integrated Housing and Slum Development project sanctioned under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JnNURM) scheme. Neighborhoods like this one, off-center from the old heritage “white town,” are very mixed, with more expensive apartments and private homes tucked into unlikely nooks, adjoining slums, ‘low income’ government-built tenements, cow sheds, dhobi ghats (washing areas for laundry), and un-walled private plots by default used as open dumps. I’m walking past with a woman, Selvi, who works as a maid in a house nearby, and lives in the government quarters, as they’re known. We remark on the presence of the new kitchen store. “Do you think of going there to buy things?” I ask, somewhat disingenuously. She laughs. “Us? It’s only people like you who can go into shops like that.” I don’t bother to clarify that it’s not the kind of shop I would really think of visiting. Continue reading →
One hears a lot of exuberant talk these days about the futures of work. Offices will go away, we’re told, or be significantly scaled back as employees work from home or the networked coffee-shop of their choosing. Work will be parceled into micro-units that can be outsourced to hyper-specialists, thus producing a micro-task economy. Mobility and freelancing will become the dominant metaphors of our multi-tasking flex-ruled times—a fallback for conventional job instabilities and a route to more fine-tuned control over life, leisure, and employment choices. Crowdsourcing and outsourcing together will mean that work can be done by lots of dispersed people in lots of dispersed places. Workforces will become 3D: ‘distributed, discontinuous and decentralized.‘ Peer-to-peer networks will replace old hierarchies. The distinction between ‘work’ and ‘social’ will blur, networked collaboration having long since displaced isolated concentration. We will demand of our work and our employers more than we ever did before; we’ll even teach them a thing or two about what gadgets and technologies make work more efficient and enjoyable. In general, millennial sensibilities will rule.
As I suggested in my last post, however, it’s unclear whose futures these are. Only a few forecasts are ever localized for India, but global enthusiasm reverberates disproportionately and faith in the capacity of technology to widen work futures is immensely strong. While it is true that some younger office crowds in the big Indian metros can contemplate and even demand flex-futures shot through with millennial whimsy, bare laboring realities still exert themselves, and forcefully. The contrasts are especially hard to ignore in India, where, all around is also ‘work’ of a very different sort: running in parallel to the more prized but no less regimented office work, there is casual work, self-employment (a category which includes street vendors and domestic workers among others), un- or semi-skilled labor, daily-wage labor on construction sites, agricultural labor that leads nowhere and is seasonal besides, factory work, service work, specialized artisanal work that has long since been downgraded to manual labor and more—all of it low-wage, and apparently bereft of any real possibility of reinvention. Continue reading →